Apr 11, 2016


5 Stages of Effective College Ministry Teams

Cole Penick writes about the five stages that are key to effective college ministry teams.

Whoever said, “The only constant is change” must have spent some time doing college ministry. Every school year it seems like something new comes along for our ministry team to tackle. New staff team members, the loss of key students, a change in worship venue, a new objective from further up the food chain, or just learning the distinctives of the new incoming class.

But even in environments that experience constant change, there is a pattern to how teams handle it. That’s because every team, no matter the size or the purpose, goes through five critical phases. Forming. Storming. Norming. Performing. Transforming. These phases were first identified by Bruce W. Tuckman in 1965 and have since been expanded and clarified by other team-building experts. The phases can’t be avoided. Instead, they have to be embraced. Great sailing teams don’t wait for ideal conditions but instead learn to use every wind to their advantage no matter its strength or direction. Valuing and maximizing each stage of team performance helps you to trim your sails just right for the most impact on your campus.


Step one is to get everyone in the same boat and headed in the same direction. This requires setting goals, mapping out how things should work, and assigning roles. While everything is still fairly theoretical at this point, making sure everyone understands the theory and their place within it will allow the team to adjust as a unit to future developments. Avoid being too vague or too specific in this phase. Your team needs to hear enough of the big picture from you to know that you know the intended destination and enough details to know you’ve plotted a course. It’s like how the pilot comes on the intercom at the beginning of a flight to tell you the destination, cruising altitude, and some general waypoints along the way. The pilot doesn’t have to share that but airlines know that passengers are more at ease if the pilot takes 60 seconds to give an overview. The Forming phase is marked by big picture ideas followed by the best-made plans of mice and men.


“Everyone has a plan until they get hit.” – Mike Tyson

Chaos is a terrifying word for most of us. But let me encourage you to love it. As leaders we often work very hard to eliminate the storming phase. In many ways, that’s a natural leadership role. We care for our team and don’t want them to struggle. We’re also ready to move on to the norming and performing stages and want to minimize the delay. But storming (marked by anxiety, extreme emotions, and productive conflict) does a lot for your team. In addition to creating focus, it helps them band together as a unit, to learn to communicate, to identify leadership and it’s role within the team, and to spur creativity and flexibility that will come in handy in the performing phase. Avoid being too general at this point or focusing exclusively on the final destination. Help them get to the next waypoint along the journey. The best thing you can do as a leader is to remain close, calm, and alert. Know that the storm will pass and norming will begin soon. Your confidence and presence absorbs their anxieties enough that they can focus on the task at hand. This allows them to discover their own roles without becoming dependent on you or despondent due to the storm.


Norming is when each team member “gets it”. As the leader, it’s important not to move too quickly. Continue to trust the flow of storming, norming, and performing. Each step along the way helps them to own the process in a way that can’t be taught; it must be caught. When you move too quickly, you leave your team either hopeless or helpless. Hopeless teams think that what their leader is envisioning is impossible and choose to quit rather than run the risk of inevitable failure. Helpless teams are willing to move forward but only in complete dependence on the leader. The norming phase helps your team create the “muscle memory” it will need to carry on the task without your direct supervision. Internalizing the skills or perspectives needed to engage a small group, lead a worship service, or disciple a new believer takes time to develop.

Norming looks different for every team but it almost always requires a beat. Our brains are built to recognize and create patterns. Even though I couldn’t carry a tune in a ten-gallon bucket, I can recognize melodies and anticipate their flow. My untrained musical ear also hates dissonance, the unstable combination of musical notes. I want rhythm. So does your staff and students. It’s how the hallways and sidewalks of campus progress from clogged chaos between classes the first few days to seemingly choreographed traffic patterns within a month. It’s why your small groups begin to create their own climate after just five or six weeks. The writers of The Four Disciplines of Execution call this “creating a cadence.” As a leader, establish patterns that act as the lattice for your teams’ growth. Don’t underestimate the value of consistency. It’s what helps your team perform efficiently and effectively.


The performance stage moves beyond “getting it” to “owning it.” This is when your team starts to think of things to make it amazing. The team trusts the system, themselves, and their teammates enough to make decisions on behalf of the team. Rowing teams call this “swing” when the boat and the crew are in perfect sync. A steady start leads to a fast pace. Some teams never make it this far, so just as you celebrated focus during the storming phase and rhythm during the norming phase, celebrate specific creative and innovative performances throughout this phase.


High performance teams make the playoffs and often even win championships. But it’s the teams that move onto transforming that create dynasties. Transforming occurs when your team or their performance moves beyond the best of the best and onto innovation and invention. The flexibility they learned early on helps them break new ground. Changes that would have been full-blown storms in the past are now launching points for innovation.

We’re not there yet. To be honest, in a few years we will probably look back at this whole year and consider it to be part of our forming, storming, or norming phase. But we sees glimpses of what is to come and we trust that by adjusting our sails just right to present wind, we will soon be do far more than we can even dream now.

about the author

Cole Penick

Cole is the Campus Minister for the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the University of Arkansas. He and his wife, Caroline, live with their four adorable children right in the middle of campus, their mission field. They enjoy family walks on campus, watching and playing sports, making and eating good food, and oh so many books.